And so the road to the Super Bowl runs through New England once again. Or maybe it's the road to Ray Lewis' retirement. Or maybe it's both. The Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will face off in Foxborough on Sunday for the right to go to the Super Bowl. For the second straight year, it's an intersection of arguably the greatest offensive player of his era and the greatest on defense.
Tom Brady vs. Ray Lewis. Patriots vs. Ravens. Our way vs. their way.
"I think the two best teams are in the [conference] finals," Brady told reporters following Sunday's 41-28 victory against the overmatched Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting."
Indeed it is. And if history is any indication, Sunday's final showdown will be far closer than the 10-point spread that experts have placed on the meeting. (The Patriots are favored.)
The specifics? The Patriots and Ravens have played six times since the start of the 2007 season, the year that marks the beginning of New England's aerial escalation. The Patriots have won four and the Ravens have won two, the teams splitting a pair of postseason meetings. Last season's game produced a 23-20 New England win after then-Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff snap-hooked a measly 32-yard field goal as time expired. In Week 3 of this season, the Ravens claimed a 31-30 victory when rookie kicker Justin Tucker (who kicked a game-winning 47-yarder in overtime at Denver on Saturday) barely squeaked through a 27-yard field goal as time expired.
In six games covering more than 24 quarters over six seasons, the Ravens have scored 149 points. The Patriots have scored 144.
Oh, and then there's this: Arguably the two worst postseason games of Brady's career have come against the Ravens. In the wild-card round in January 2010, Brady posted an atrocious 49.1 quarterback rating - the lowest of his postseason career - in the Patriots' 33-14 loss. Brady's second-worst rating in 23 career playoff games was the 57.5 he posted ... in last year's game against the Ravens.
All in all, Brady has seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions in his last six games against Baltimore. He has completed just 59.7 percent of his passes. He has been sacked 15 times. His aggregate rating is a Sanchezian 75.0.
Brady turned in a strong effort against the Ravens in September, but generally speaking, against the Ravens, the most successful quarterback of his era (and among the three the greatest of all-time) plays like a cross between second-year Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker (a 74.0 rating this season) and Miami Dolphins rookie QB Ryan Tannehill (76.1).
Don't shoot the messenger. That is what the numbers say.
Throughout the NFL, much has been made of the deterioration of the Baltimore defense this season, but don't expect to hear much talk of that from Foxborough this week. Thus far this postseason, the Ravens defense has shut down rookie phenom Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts - Indy got inside the Baltimore 18-yard line once two weeks ago - and sufficiently stifled the great Peyton Manning. Though Denver scored 35 points in Sunday's 38-35 overtime loss to the Ravens, the Broncos scored two touchdown on special teams, meaning the offense produced just 21 points in more than five quarters against the Baltimore defense.
In its final three possessions, Denver never got past its own 39-yard line.
In the end, maybe Lewis and the Ravens won't be quite good enough to beat Manning and Brady in succession, on the road. Maybe Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco will prove to be the weak link. Maybe Tucker will ultimately crack the way Cundiff did. But most everything in the recent history between these teams points to a physical, tightly contested affair because that is the way most every game between the Patriots and Ravens has played out in recent years.
In the one instance of a blowout - the 33-14 outcome in January 2010 - Baltimore won the game.
On Sunday, when Brady suggested "the two best teams are in the finals," he wasn't just paying lip service. Over the last five seasons - a period that coincides with Flacco's arrival in Baltimore - the Patriots (60-20) and Ravens (54-26) have the two best records in the AFC. That is essentially a difference of one win per year.
In "A Football Life," the NFL documentary of Patriots coach Bill Belichick that chronicled the 2009 Patriots season, Belichick speaks highly of the Baltimore operation, of how the Ravens are in it for the long haul. Belichick and Brady sing the praises of Baltimore safety Ed Reed. In subsequent years, we have seen similar footage of Brady expressing a similar respect for Lewis.
Now it all comes full circle again in Foxborough on Sunday, where Lewis will trot on and off the field from the visiting sideline for a final time. Reed's contract is set to expire at the end of the year. These Patriots and those Ravens clash for one final time, for the right to claim superiority of the AFC, for the right, one more time, to play in the biggest game in sports.
Gentlemen, no introductions are necessary.
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